Despite Palestinian Boycott, White House Touts Israeli, Arab Presence at Gaza Conference

20 countries - including Israel but not the Palestinian Authority - 'left their politics at the door' to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian children play among discarded vehicles in el-Zohor slum, on the outskirts of Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip on June 20, 2016.
Khalil Hamra / AP

WASHINGTON –The Trump administration was pleased by international attendance of the conference on Gaza it held Tuesday, a senior White House official said, despite the Palestinian Authority's decline to participate.

Representatives from 20 countries including Israel gathered in the White House for a conference to address the dire economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. The event began just hours after a failed assassination attempt on Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who arrived to Gaza for the opening of a water treatment facility.  

A senior White House official said that the conference was "very productive" in a press briefing following the six-hour long conference. "We had representatives from twenty countries, including many Arab countries and Israel [represented]," he said. The official said the administration was warned "many of them can't be in the same room with each other," and it was "refreshing to see all of them together at the same table."

Among the Arab countries that took part in the discussion were Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Also present were representatives of the European Union and the United Nations. Israel was represented by Major General Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Actions in the Territories. 

The White House official said that the participating countries "left their politics at the door," and focused on finding solutions to the humanitarian, security and economic situation in Gaza. "The Trump administration believes the situation in Gaza requires immediate assistance," the official said, adding that improving the situation in Gaza is vital to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

The Palestinian Authority boycotted the event. According to the White House, an invitation was extended to the Palestinian Authority, but "they made it clear they won't attend."

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said it was pleased and "encouraged to see many of our neighbors in attendance."

"We hope their participation will lead to progress towards greater regional stability and peace with the Palestinians," the statement added.

The Trump administration's peace plan was not discussed during the session, the White House official said, explaining that the administration is still working on the details of this plan. A big part of the discussion, however, "focused on the need for the Palestinian Authority to take control over Gaza," the official said.

Gaza faces a 43.6 unemployment rate, and many in Gaza blame Israel for the hardships, accusing it of placing an economic blockade on the enclave that has drastically reduced movement of people and goods. 
But Gazans also fault their own leaders, complaining of a power struggle between Hamas, the armed group that seized military power in Gaza in 2007, and Fatah, the secular party of Western-backed Palestinian President Abbas. 

The format of the conference did not include direct talks between the different participants, but rather, a joint discussion in which "everyone sat together at the same big table." Israel was represented at the discussion by IDF Major General Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Actions in the Territories. Most of the other participants were mid-level diplomats from the different participating countries.

In reply to a question from Haaretz, the White House said that reports in recent months alleging that the administration is considering a "Gaza based" peace plan including land swaps with Egypt in Sinai were "false", and that the issue was not part of the discussion on Tuesday. The official described those reports as "pure speculation."

"We need to fix Gaza whether we reach a peace agreement or not reach a peace agreement," the White House official said, clarifying that the discussion on the issue will continue even if the Palestinian Authority continues not to engage in peace talks with the Trump administration.

Reuters contributed to this report.